Wed, 12 Jul 2006 12:16:25
Album Reviews: The Avalanche: Outtakes & Extras from the Illinois Album by Sufjan StevensSufjan Stevens is a cagey man. Whatever his motive for releasing The Avalanche, a collection of "outtakes and extras" from last year's instantly canonized Illinois, it will surely do him a favor by throwing some "new" material to eager fans and critics, stalling the clamor and intense pressure surrounding his next plunge into his ambitious mission to write an album about every state in the union (48 to go). Of course The Avalanche will be compared to Illinois, but unlike whatever state album comes next, it isn't expected to match or surpass what has been, so far, his crowning achievement (although traditionalists and minimalists may give that honor to Seven Swans).
Since Illinois had initially been conceived as a double-disc set, it's somewhat less astounding that these "outtakes and extras" often sound like they would fit smoothly into the "real" album's tracklist. Stevens also went back to retool and polish once he decided to release The Avalanche, so it's not like these are just scraps from the cutting room floor. Brief instrumental sketches like "Inaugural Pop Music for Jane Margaret Byrne" feel somewhat unrealized, but are the sorts of quirky, pace-setting interludes to which Stevens has often gravitated. Doing a final tally at the end, it turns out that there's about the same number of good songs on The Avalanche as on Illinois, although the very best of the batch was cherry-picked for the latter.
One of the crown jewels of Illinois is given fresh life on The Avalanche, which presents three considerably different versions of "Chicago": a moving acoustic version that's built around a mournfully adjusted lead riff; a pleasant but forgettable take that is perfectly dubbed "Adult Contemporary Easy Listening Version"; and a "Multiple Personality Disorder Version" that imagines an alternate universe in which Stevens suppresses his ample pop music gifts. The latter location is a place worth visiting, but we can all be glad that he doesn't stay there.
Stevens has rapidly perfected his signature sound, and always has a pair of aces up his sleeve. The first is the crowded style of arrangement that uses woods and horns and choirs -- and propelled "Come On! Feel The Illinoise!" (among others). Nothing on The Avalanche is quite the grand statement of that track, or the original version of "Chicago." But there are near-equals in his other style: the sensitive, often quiet fare that plants itself in a mutated Americana and emphasizes instruments like banjos and pianos and features some of his more straightforward and poignant lyrics. On Illinois, this style was best represented by "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." and "Casimir Pulaski Day." Stevens is most consistent when he's writing in this vein, and The Avalanche adds a few gems to the stack, foremost among them "Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shad-fly Caught in His Hair," which seems to pack a thousand ideas into just over four minutes, and has a Woodstocky refrain ("Running out of Spriiiingfield…") that's easy to imagine hearing from The Band or CSNY. Taken as a whole, though, it's impossible to imagine The Avalanche coming from anyone else. Here's hoping that Stevens still sounds this fresh when he's 20 states into his road trip. - Adam McKibbin, The Red Alert
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